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  (Source: U.S. Department of Energy)

An old fashioned grid may be inefficient, but it may be easier to secure than a "smart grid". Much of the benefits of a smart grid come from internet connectivity, and that connectivity opens the door to attacks.  (Source: Shuttershock)

Lockheed Martin's Kenneth Van Meter  (Source: West Virginia University)
Coincidentally Lockheed Martin happens to sell security software

Lockheed Martin's General Manager of Energy & Cyber Services, Kenneth Van Meter, speaking with green-power site Smart Planet voiced some dire warnings about the United States' push to adopt a "smart grid".  According to Mr. Van Meter, the transition poses a glaring threat to the security of the U.S.

He comments, "Right now if I wanted to cut off the power to your house, I’d climb the pole, and there’s a manual switch. Everything’s physical. Once we have a smart grid in place I could do that from China."

"The sheer volume of interactive devices on two-way networks is the biggest risk. By the end of 2015 we will have 440 million new hackable points on the grid. Nobody’s equipped to deal with that today."

When asked about the worse case scenario he remarks:

There are three. The one everyone thinks about is the neighborhood kid or someone in another country turning off the power to the neighborhood or the hospital in the middle of night. While no one wants that to happen, it’ll be detected pretty quickly, so it’s not a disaster.

The second potential problem has to do with voltage control. If you want to optimize the amount of power the electrical company has, you want to engage in voltage control, where you have devices along the line from the substation. You can adjust the voltage, everyone gets the right voltage, and everyone’s appliances are running more efficiently. Putting in those devices is expensive, and now those become hackable points–because if you can control them, then someone else can control them. So if your power is out, that would be highly inconvenient. But what if they ran the voltage up and down on your house and when it was fixed, the voltage-sensitive equipment like your computer and high-definition TV didn’t work any more?

Third: If you can cause rapid problems in the grid to occur in the right places at scheduled times, you could destabilize the whole grid, black out whole cities or states and cause massive damage. Sometimes this happens accidentally, but it could also happen because someone makes it happen. Some of the devices are very expensive and therefore there are few spares. Substation-sized transformers, for example, aren’t even made in this country anymore and sometimes it can take two years to get one.

Coincidentally, Mr. Van Meter's company sells security solutions to utilities, so his reason for evangelizing about the smart grid's insecurity may not be purely altruistic.  And Lockheed Martin has had its own security woes recently, with Chinese spies reportedly breaking into servers used in the company's F-35 Lightning II fighter project.

Nonetheless, the points raised are largely valid.  Virtually every large piece of software (Windows, Linux, OS X, Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, Adobe Flash, etc.) created has had vulnerabilities that have been found and exploited.  Its unlikely to think that the software that governs the grid will be free of similar vulnerabilities.

A web-connected grid, like Google Grid or Microsoft Hohm, sounds great on paper, but it introduces a pressing need for security, as people from all over the world can now try to attack the power infrastructure remotely.  And where a typical cyberattack may merely deny people access to a website, or damage their personal computers, an attack on the grid could literally prove deadly.  So Lockheed Martin may be a bit biased, but they're probably right, in this case.


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This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

By chunkymonster on 10/7/2010 9:52:16 AM , Rating: 2
As someone who works for a gas and electric utility, I can say with some confidence that moving to any type of "smart" grid will take years and millions of dollars to complete.

At the Local Delivery Company (LDC) level, meaning the company that owns the poles, pipes, and wires that supply electricity to your house and neighborhood, would have to basically completely overhaul their entire infrastructure to provide this type of remote connectivity and control. As it today, any moves by LDC's to employ a "smart" grid is limited to monitoring of outages and voltage controls (SCADA) with very limited, if any, capability to actually open and close switches at the substation or delivery circuit level. And at most, LDC's are installing "smart meters" as a means to provide remote meter reading capability and possibly shut off or turn on the power to a specific meter in case of a non-paying customer.

You have to remember that the poles, pipes, and wires are privately owned assets by the LDC. Any moves to install a smart grid are at capital expense to the LDC and recoverable through the rate base, and ultimately at the cost of increased electric rates to the rate payer. If installing smart grid technology is solely based on the return on investment that comes from the rate payers, many rate payers will not support any increase in their electric rates just so the LDC can install smart grid technology. If anything, smart grid technology will need to be subsidized by the State Regulatory Agency through rate incentives or through Federal government tax incentives.

As far as the 2nd scenario with "hackable" points that could potentially allow for nefarious persons to "mess up the voltage" is offset by the physical devices (capacitors, circuit redundancy, etc) built into the delivery system to mitigate those types of issues. It will take many years, if ever, for any remote control to be placed on the fuses and switches that actually run down neighborhood streets.

This "warning" is alarmist at best and apparent that Lockheed Martin is over estimating the capabilities of the smart grid as well as seemingly giving a shameless plug for their security systems; no doubt that the recent events at the Iranian nuke stations has something to so with this.

The national electric grid has to worry more about some nut job placing a bomb at the base of select electric transmission tower lines than some geek hacker wanting to cause a black out.




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